September 9, 2021

The passionate mentor

Greg Funk discusses his greatest contribution to science—his trainees

Professor Greg Funk

Photo supplied by Funk.

“When I finally close the doors to my research laboratory, I have little doubt that my greatest contribution to science will be the trainees I leave behind,” says Greg Funk, who has had 16 trainees supported by Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation since 2009. 

Funk’s research sheds light on how brain changes activated at birth protect a baby’s breathing and how this knowledge can be used to develop treatments for breathing disorders, like apnea of prematurity, drug-related respiratory depression and even sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Although Funk, a professor in the department of physiology and recipient of the 2018 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring, claims not to be an expert in mentoring, his students—current and former, including former PhD student Jennifer Zwicker—would disagree. 

“As a mentor, Greg is highly respected by his students and peers due to his unwavering commitment to detail, research excellence and his enthusiasm in communicating through teaching and supporting trainees to reach their full potential,” says Zwicker, a Canada Research Chair and deputy scientific officer of Kids Brain Health Network. 

Zwicker has experienced how humble, down to earth and approachable Funk is, firsthand. “He generously shares his extensive knowledge and time with trainees and I aim to model my mentorship approach after what I learned from him,” says Zwicker. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without his outstanding mentorship, training and support.”

Funk sat down with us to discuss his passion for mentoring and provide advice to those interested in pursuing a career in science. 

What’s the distinction between teaching, supervising and mentoring? 

Teaching is about sharing knowledge. Supervising involves helping trainees stay on task and keeping things moving forward. Mentoring goes much further and is a life-long commitment. It means giving trainees the hard and soft skills—like lab techniques and critical thinking skills—as well as the opportunities that they need to have a successful career. The mentor-mentee relationship is unique and is a privilege that comes with great responsibility.

How has your approach changed since you first began mentoring?

It was hard, but I learned that motivation can’t be taught. If a student lacks the motivation to keep driving themselves forward, there is little I can do to change their behaviour. I have always tried to design trainees’ first projects so that they are achievable and significant because early success fosters confidence and trainees get excited if they understand the significance of what they are doing.

Why is inviting trainees to participate in the research process important?

It’s the first step in training the next generation of scientists. Even if we don’t capture all of the trainees to follow a research career their experience can still be very positive. Research experience helps develop critical thinkers who will navigate their lives with healthy skepticism, who can evaluate information on their own and who will know how to ask the critical questions.

The experience also provides trainees with a real understanding of the scientific process, which makes them perfect advocates for science and its importance in today’s society.

What makes a good mentor/supervisor?

Someone who is passionate about their science, is invested in helping others succeed and recognizes that both parties, the mentor and trainee, bring value to the relationship. Mutual respect is key in fostering a healthy mentor/mentee relationship, as is open communication about each other’s expectations.

Is there a part of the supervision/mentoring process that you enjoy the most?

It’s incredibly satisfying to see trainees transition from asking what they should do to telling you what they plan to do next. Watching them succeed and evolve into independent, critical thinkers is amazing.

What advice have you received from your supervisor/mentor that you now pass on to your trainees?

For those who are going into science: Don’t get overly focussed on learning techniques. Many of the techniques that are currently standard will become obsolete. Focus on learning how to identify the important questions, then on asking how best to answer them—which will often require developing new techniques or technologies.

It’s also vital to learn how to communicate your science. Great science does not get recognized automatically. The scientific enterprise is simply too big. You have to promote your work and present it to key audiences. Communication is an art form and requires practice, you need to learn how to become a good storyteller. 

Do you have any advice for students who are interested in becoming involved in research, or continuing on in their research journey?

Take ownership of your research as soon as possible—show initiative and don’t just do what you are told. Ownership is highly motivating and will increase your sense of pride and accomplishment—the more you put in the more you get out.

Your supervisor is not your adversary. You are in graduate school and a research laboratory to acquire a set of skills, both hard and soft. The tasks suggested are not designed to make your life miserable, but to improve the science. Your success is also your mentor’s success, your failure is also your mentor’s failure, so in the majority of cases, your mentor will be your strongest advocate!

Don’t be dissuaded by comments that a career in science is too hard. A misleading statistic is that only 15-18 per cent of PhDs get faculty positions. A more relevant number would be the percentage of PhDs who actually wanted a faculty position. If you are a person who loves answering questions and can’t wait to get into the lab to solve the next puzzle, believe in yourself and don’t be dissuaded by naysayers.

Your passion for mentoring is reflected in the incredible success of your trainees. How do you feel about all of the contributions both you and your trainees have made towards transforming the health of children?

Discovery research is about baby steps on a very long path, where each step is a hard win. “Eureka” moments have happened only three times in my career, and all three were the result of my conceding to do an experiment proposed by a trainee, which I did not think would work. These were exhilarating moments. However, outside those moments it is rare to reflect back on what has been achieved because so much more remains to be done. The best experiments and studies generate far more questions than answers. So while there is a lot of satisfaction in achieving each step, the focus immediately turns to the next question.

When my trainees succeed or achieve milestones in their careers I am so excited for them as I know the journey they undertook to get there. I feel very privileged to have been a part of their journey and in most cases am thankful that I did not mess it up for them!

Greg Funk and a number of his trainees have been supported through numerous grants from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.

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